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michael w. higgins

Michael W. Higgins is vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

The long-awaited papal response to the two-part assembly of bishops in Rome on the family has now appeared – lengthy, substantive, innovative, traditional: classic Bergoglio.

Pope Francis's Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love) – in Vatican-speak, a post-synodal apostolic exhortation – is a mini-masterpiece of adroit pastorship, political savvy, and organic conservatism.

Francis addresses directly the complex issues surrounding the nature of marriage, the evolving status of the family, the myriad dimensions of love, the social and political pressures on the person and the family unit, and the stark failure of the church and its ministers to provide a vigorous and creative advocacy for choosing marriage and the family in our time. In fact, he laments the church's reliance on a "far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage" and reminds his readers – clergy specifically – that "we have been called to form consciences, not replace them."

As he surveys the compromised, messy, floundering and hugely diverse landscape of contemporary human relationships, the Pope declares "that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the Magisterium [the teaching authority of the church]."

This is not the way popes speak.

In addition, and in keeping with his policy of decentralizing power within a pathologically centralized church-governance structure, he underscores his conviction that "each country or region can seek solutions better suited to its own culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs."

Again, this stands in stark contrast with his two immediate predecessors, who preferred a more universalizing and uniform approach.

Francis is no ethical situationist, however, as he accepts the traditional biblical anthropology concerning the nature of male and female persons, affirms Catholic teaching on the unacceptability of same-sex marriages ("same-sex unions may not simply be equated with marriage"), and reiterates the importance of procreative fecundity. Catholic traditionalists need not despair.

But he also says "the church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage." Catholic traditionalists might consider despairing.

This is the Franciscan style: articulate general truths, acknowledge our incomplete grasp of their full integrity, recognize the "graduality" of moral maturation – on the part of individual Catholics and the church itself – and prioritize reality over ideas, people over rules and agonizing approximations of the ideal over unbending strictures on human behaviour.

Questions concerning the readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics – a particularly thorny matter for millions of Catholics and their spiritual leaders – were placed within the context of local decision-making and prudential judgment, urging priest-penitent co-responsibility and deploying what theologians and canon lawyers call the "internal forum" solution.

Francis remains consistent throughout his document in privileging the pastoral over the doctrinal not by diminishing or trivializing the latter but by attaching the highest importance to "shepherding in mercy."

Canadian historians and ecclesiologists might like to contrast this apostolic exhortation with the last one on the family issued in 1981 by Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio. The Canadian episcopal delegates who had attended the synod on the family could barely recognize themselves or the issues they had raised. The then Cardinal Archbishop of Toronto, Gerard Emmett Carter, was dismayed and angry.

Joy of Love is a very different piece of work – collegial, contemporary and genuinely catholic (with a lower-case "c") in its sensibility.

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